Residents Matter as Washington, DC Gets Ready to Create its First Sustainability Plan

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This past Wednesday, over 400 residents of Washington, DC gathered in the Convention Center to form working groups that will inform the content of the city’s first sustainability plan.  The energy in the room was palpable, as Mayor Gray restated his vision to make Washington “the greenest city in the nation.” After introductory words from the Mayor, Planning Director Harriet Tregoning went over the results from initial outreach efforts and urged us to “think outside of the box” when outlining goals and targets for the plan.  We then separated into nine different groups and got down to work.

These groups will meet several times over the next two months and are part of the city’s broader engagement efforts.  Between September and November, city staff attended roughly 50 community meetings to get initial feedback from residents.  The information from those meetings, along with the goals and targets that the working groups develop, will be used to draft the plan (this version should be released in the Spring of 2012).  Needless to say, participating residents could have a quite a bit of influence over the design of our city’s sustainability plan!

Such rigorous community engagement activities that move towards more democratic decision-making processes are increasingly commonplace, which is encouraging given that, as a nation, we are ethnically, racially, and culturally diversifying—one or two stakeholder groups rarely represent the various interests in any city. As a result, planning departments are using an assortment of methods to acknowledge and incorporate the expertise and opinions of their constituents.  For example, Portland, Ore., has engaged in a rigorous community involvement process to design the Portland Plan. The city is using tools such as online platforms (Twitter, Facebook, videos); public hearings; community fairs; and an Inspiring Communities series, an educational tool for residents which features national and international experts on a range of sustainability topics.  Similarly, in the creation of Baltimore, Md.’s Sustainability Plan (formally adopted in 2009), the city engaged over 1,000 residents in an eight month period through working groups, a deliberate youth strategy, and sustainability forums.  The Office of Sustainability also formed a Youth Advisory Group that maintains the “Youth Zone” portion of their website in order to make sure that participation from this non-traditional group continues throughout the implementation of the plan.  Additionally, the webpage offers a place for city residents to share their individual efforts at creating a more sustainable city.

As a resident of Washington, I am curious to see how effectively the city will continue to engage its residents.  So far, they have been successful with their initial attempt to engage the community; however, I do wonder how deliberate they will be moving forward.  For example, how will the city purposefully reach out to residents who haven’t been involved as yet?  What will be the effect of our recommendations on deciding which targets to prioritize?  And how will the city continue to keep residents excited about sustainability (at an individual and community level) in the coming years?  Such questions are not necessarily new ones for community engagement experts; nevertheless, they need to be reframed and asked again as more and more local governments and residents come together around sustainability.  Luckily, there are already several model practices-such as those in Portland and Baltimore- which Washington and other cities can turn to for inspiration.